Global Propane blast pits residents against business

The Global Propane explosion and fire that killed a worker and destroyed four houses has triggered a conflict between the Butler County business and some residents who live around it.

It may be end up being hashed out in court, officials and at least one resident say.

On one side: Global Propane, owner of a propane supply facility on Butler Road between Andover and Rose Hill. The location has been a propane facility for decades — before most of the residential development came to the neighborhood.

On the other side: Residents — some with houses valued at $750,000 to $4 million — whose sense of safety has been shaken.

The upscale houses are in the Flint Hills National Residences development, which sits within a half-mile to a mile of Global Propane. There are 85 houses in the development, with plans for up to 140.

Other residential development has been planned east and west of the Global Propane.

Butler County Commissioner Dan Woydziak, said the situation puts local government in a tough spot —"keeping everybody as safe as we can and not over-regulating business."

He has received calls from several Flint Hills residents concerned about safety after the explosion and fire Aug. 2.

As it stands, it appears that the Global location has been a propane supply facility so long it is grandfathered in, and the county probably can't legally force the business to move, county officials say.

Conflicting views

Bill Warren, owner of Warren Theaters, who lives within a mile of Global Propane, said: "I don't see where the neighbors will have any choice but to take protracted legal action on this ... because the risk of life is too great to let it stand like this."

Referring to the 18,000-gallon propane storage tank that burned along with other propane containers, Warren said, "That basically is like having a small nuclear bomb in the neighborhood that could go off."

John Jacobsen, president and owner of Global Energy, Global Propane's parent company, said: "From my perspective, I understand their concerns. We had a terrible accident."

The location has operated safely for more than 30 years, Jacobsen said.

"I'm a small-business owner, reeling from a tragic incident right now. I don't have, quite honestly, the opportunity to just pick up and go elsewhere.

"I have customers I have to service" and employees "to provide for," he said.

"I'm not married to that location, but I can't just pick up and go somewhere else."

After cleanup and repairs, he said, he expects the facility will be partially operating within a week and fully operating in 90 days.

There has been a propane facility at the site for at least 35 years, Jacobsen said, and he has owned the business there since 2007.

According to Butler County District 3 Fire Chief Jim Woydziak, brother of the county commissioner, the damage occurred after a coupling broke as a worker was filling a propane cylinder. What ignited the propane may never be known. Flames shot 33-pound cylinders up to 400 feet through the air; some became imbedded in the ground, Jim Woydziak said.

The spreading fire destroyed three nearby houses and a commercial building and a fourth house across the street. A fifth house sustained damage. The fire also damaged or destroyed 11 vehicles, mostly at the business, at 13323 SW Butler Road, he said.

As the flames spread to the north, they burned less than an acre of grass at the edge of the Flint Hills housing development but did not damage homes there, Jim Woydziak said.

A preliminary damage estimate is $1.3 million, he said.

'A no-win situation'

Dan Woydziak, the county commissioner whose district includes the Global Propane property, said: "I really don't know if we can legally stop them from rebuilding if they chose to rebuild.

"Quite frankly, we would love them to go to a more rural setting, but they've been there 40 plus years ... and this was one of those freak deals." As far as he knows, he said, Global Propane has met or exceeded safety standards "and they have been a good neighbor." He said he has never heard a complaint about the business before the accident.

According to the Kansas State Fire Marshal's Office, the business has passed inspections.

Global Propane isn't the only propane business in a populated area, Dan Woydziak said, adding that the county recently approved a day care locating by another propane facility near Andover.

Rod Compton, the county's planning and development director, said it appears from researching records that a propane facility has been at the Butler Road site before zoning regulations went into effect about 40 years ago or was approved decades ago.

A business that is grandfathered in can operate forever — unless it ceases to operate for six months, and then it would have to comply with current regulations, he said.

A decision on the legal issues could come down to a court ruling, Compton said.

Butler County Commissioner Jeff Masterson, whose district includes the Flint Hills neighborhood, said he has received calls from residents there, "and they're all opposed to that business reopening" at the current location.

"Most of the folks I talked to seemed very reasonable," he said. "They just wanted to make sure their concerns were heard."

Both the county and Andover are in a "no-win situation" over the issue, he said.

The Andover city boundaries take in property on the east and west sides of Global Propane that have been slated for residential development.

Butler Road, which runs by the business, will eventually be expanded, and is expected to be one of the main development corridors in the county, Masterson said.

"Personally, I would like to see them (Global Propane) relocate, but I don't know that they can be forced to relocate," he said.

In fairness to Global Propane, Masterson said, "we have propane outlets everywhere."

"Many of them are situated close to residential areas, and there has not been a problem. Propane really is a safe fuel."

Masterson, who grew up in rural Butler County between El Dorado and Augusta, said his family used a 500-gallon propane tank to heat their house.

'Unacceptable risk'

Warren, the well-known theater owner who lives within a mile of Global Propane, said: "I don't think anyone wants to see a business close down. The issue is whether that business should be at that location," in an increasingly residential and populated area.

Even if the recent fire and explosion was a rare event, the presence of so much propane poses an "absolute, unacceptable risk," Warren said.

"You could have lightning strikes," or a car could smash into the tanks, he said.

"I see a lot of school buses going up and down that street, and it can't stand, whether that business is grandfathered in or not."

In the future, people could be concerned about building homes in the area of the business "if there's the possibility of some catastrophe occurring," Warren said.

"There is no way they can guarantee that will not happen again."

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